Over the past few days, Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich has been the subject of criticism due to his unusually high number of Twitter followers. Some say a large number of his followers were manufactured by a Twitter account generator to falsely boost his online clout. His campaign contends his follower count came from other means, explaining instead his early adoption of the social network and his personal engagement with his followers, in addition to having been featured as a suggested account for quite some time.
We won't take a position on whether or not Gingrich's followers are legit but it is worth noting that before he began his presidential run, Gingrich was the literally the only right-leaning political pundit to be recommended to Twitter users by the company. That stands in dramatic contrast to the many liberal pundits and media outlets which Twitter recommends to its users via a hand-picked list. Read on for the full details.
Suggested accounts have been a subject of controversy for Twitter in the past, with allegations that its handpicked lists of users are not only liberally biased, but can also benefit the people the lists promote. In 2009, for example, Twitter created a suggested list of accounts that excluded Republican candidates in favor of Democrat candidates, giving an extreme advantage to the Democrats to the tune of hundreds of thousands of new followers. Now, Twitter has selectively crafted a list of suggested news accounts that suspiciously skip over any conservative news pundits.
The power of being promoted by Twitter has huge ramifications for the size of an account's following. As explained by the Hill following the November 2009 election,
A recent study said that those on the list could gain up to 50,000 new followers after being on the list for one week. The controversy comes as Twitter has grown in popularity as a tool for politicians and candidates to share information with their constituents and potential voters.
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (D), who dropped out of the gubernatorial race at the end of last month, is on the list and has over 1.2 million followers. State Attorney General Jerry Brown (D) is also on the list and has 960,000 followers.
None of the three Republicans entered into the race are on the list and each have fewer than 5,000 followers.
With such allegations, Twitter reworked the feature to categorizes its suggested followers into specialized, smaller lists. "Who to Follow" lists replaced Twitter's original, more generic list of account suggestions, categorizing accounts into groupings including News and Government.
The news list suggests 51 accounts. Populating that list are six ABC accounts, three NBC accounts, two CBS accounts, three MSNBC accounts, six CNN accounts, two NPR accounts, two PBS accounts, three BBC accounts, two NY Times accounts, two Huffington Post accounts, and a combination of other arguably liberal accounts including Newsweek, the Economist, Time Magazine, LA Times, WaPo, Chicago Tribune, AP, Reuters, ProPublica, Bloomberg News, and Slate. Excluding two government news accounts (FBI Press Office and West Wing News), two technology accounts (Digg and Wired's Gadget Lab), and three more specialized news accounts (Life.com, the Onion, and Al-Jazeera English), that leaves only two more accounts: Wall Street Journal and Fox News.
While liberal media outlets are greater in number and it makes sense to include all the major networks, Twitter does not promote the the media accounts equally. MSNBC's David Gregory and Rachel Maddow are suggested. CNN's Anderson Cooper, Larry King, Ali Velshi, and Jack Gray are suggested. Each network station also has a number of their TV personalities suggested. Absent from the list are suggestions to follow Fox News personalities like Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity, or radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck, completely swaying the list in favor of liberal media outlets and their even more liberally inclined opinion journalists.
To take Fox News as an example, the official Fox News Twitter account follows over 80 accounts of Fox News correspondants, commentators, reporters, and editors. They are not in short supply to follow, but Twitter has not promoted any of them in its news category.
Admittedly, the suggested accounts on the government list are much less biased. It actually follows a greater number of Republican than Democrat politicians, but that can be explained by the fact that it follows all the major 2012 presidential contenders, and no Democrats are running against President Obama. In addition to following candidates, the Republican suggestions include former Gov. Sarah Palin, Sen. John McCain, Ambassador Condoleezza Rice, House Speaker John Boehner, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The high-ranking Democrats on the list include Obama, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, and press secretary Jay Carney.
Twitter has also previously given Obama the upper hand in allowing him to host the first official Twitter town hall. While Republican presidential candidates created their own version of a Twitter town hall at 140townhall.com, the event was not an official Twitter-sponsored event.
NewsBusters contacted Twitter for comment on this story but did not receive a response to our inquiry by press time.